The big clear cube formed around us as I twisted the smaller Cube in my hands. Ethan yelped in fright, and I quickly hooked one of my arms around his to keep him from running away
“Wh- What is this?” he squeaked.
Various pieces of scenery flashed past, appearing and vanishing in a strobe light-ish pattern. I kept my eyes fixed on the Cube. Warping was bad enough when it was just me. With Ethan here, one wrong turn could get us both killed — and the council would definitely fire me if that happened. But if I was right, we would be arriving right…about…
I snapped the last row of cubes into place, and we appeared on top of an old building. Trees were growing wildly all around the place, and the parking lot’s pavement was sun-bleached and cracked. Out by the road, which looked like it hadn’t seen a car since the Model T, stood a tall sign with the words Fun Lane painted on it in colors that must have once been bright and cheerful.
“See? That wasn’t too bad,” I said, dusting off my hands. “I meant to put us in the parking lot, but this is just as…”
I paused and looked around.
I rushed to the edge of the building, looked down, and found Ethan hanging there by his fingertips.
“Oh, chicken and waffles! Hold on!” I got to my knees, gently setting the Cube down beside me, and reached out for him. He grabbed my arm, and I heaved backwards, pulling him up onto the roof with me.
“There we go!” I said with a grin. “Safe and sound.”
Ethan lay on his back, gasping like a fish I’d reeled out of the water. “What…the hell…was that?”
I picked up the Cube. “This? It’s an Escher Cube. It lets you tunnel straight through dimensions even when there’s no Corner to cut.”
“Then what did you drop me off the building for?”
I shrugged. “Sorry, it’s more of an art than a science. Come on, let’s find a way in.”
I headed for the back of the building, and Ethan scurried up behind me a few seconds later.
“Where are we?” he demanded.
“Somewhere in Arkansas, I guess,” I said.
“And what are we doing here?”
“Exactly what you think.”
There! I jogged over to where a trapdoor was waiting for us, the kind that maintenance workers use to come up here to do…maintenance-y things. I gave it a tug, but it was locked. No problem. Drawing Splatsy, I extended her to warhammer form with a flick of my wrist.
Ethan stepped up beside me. “Wait, so there’s really one of those—”
I slammed Splatsy down onto the trapdoor, blasting it off its hinges and down into the dark, abandoned depths of Fun Lane.
“Yep!” I said cheerfully. I reached for the ladder that led inside, but stopped when Ethan grabbed me by the arm.
“And you brought me here why?” he demanded.
Rolling my eyes, I sat down with my legs dangling through the trapdoor and looked at him. “Fine, let’s just get this out of the way. You don’t want to be here. I don’t want you here either. All you’re going to do is get in my way and possibly die.”
He took a step back.
“But I work for the Council of Shnoob,” I went on. “And I didn’t think things through last night when I said I’d take care of you. What I meant was, ‘I’ll give him a place to stay until this all blows over.’ What they heard was, ‘I’ll drag him all over creation with me like a puppy that doesn’t want to go for walkies.’”
“And now I’m stuck with you,” he said flatly.
I shrugged again. “I am also stuck with you, so don’t go thinking you’re special or anything, bub.”
“Forgive me if I don’t jump for joy.”
“And forgive me,” I snapped, standing up, “if I don’t weep dramatically. Now get down there!”
He looked down the hole, and then took a step back. “Uh, no. One of those things almost killed me last night. I am not—”
“Ethan, look,” I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “If there’s one thing in the world I know how to do, it’s fighting maiams. I won’t let it hurt you, okay?”
“Did you tell my uncle that too?”
I froze. Ethan glared at me for a few seconds, but then looked away and folded his arms.
“Fine,” I snapped, stepping down onto the ladder. “Stay here. But if you attract another maiam before I come back, I won’t be up here to help you.”
He spun around. “Wait! Will that happen?”
I ignored him and began to climb down.
“Henry? On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it that’ll happen?”
I waited until I reached the floor to answer. “Probably a two, maybe a three.”
“But it goes up every time you open your mouth!”
I took a few steps away, then smiled to myself when I heard Ethan clamber down after me.
“Okay, what do I do?” he asked.
“Just stay close,” I said, making my way farther in. “But not, like, get-your-face-smashed-in-when-I-swing-Splatsy close.”
“I know, right?”
We were in the building’s storage area. Empty metal racks cast eerie shadows, and our footsteps echoed like we were disturbing an old, forgotten tomb. In the distance I could see the remains of a dilapidated pizza kitchen. And there were the big double doors leading to the main part of the building. Throwing them open, I stepped through…
And felt my breath catch in my throat.
This place was huge! Sunlight shone through the dusty glass doors up front, giving me a faint light to see by. Not much had been left behind after the place closed, but what was still here told stories like hieroglyphs on a wall.
I wandered absentmindedly over to where the restaurant’s tables stood, welded to the floor, and trailed my fingers through the dust. How many birthdays had been celebrated here, with pizza, cake, family, and friends? A little ways off, I could see a worn out roller skating rink. When I closed my eyes, I swore I could hear the echoes of 70’s music as people skated in the multicolored light of a disco ball. A climbing wall with half the pegs missing, bowling lanes, squares in the faded carpet where arcade games had once stood.
And above everything else, laughter.
I could smell it. Old laughter, more of a memory than anything, but a place like this couldn’t exist without the joy it brought to people sinking into every surface. That’s why the maiam had come here. Emotion is as much a part of a klaon as blood is to a human. As weird as it sounded, I almost felt like this broken down old building was a distant relative of mine.
“Doesn’t it make you sad?” I whispered.
Ethan raised an eyebrow. “Does what make me sad?”
“This!” I held my hands out in front of me. “This was all built to make people happy…to make them laugh…and now it’s just abandoned like yesterday’s garbage.”
He looked around again. “Yeah, it sucks. Now can you please focus on the monster?”
Ignoring him, I walked over to the bowling lanes, feeling strangely nostalgic despite never having been here before in my life. A few old pins still lay scattered around.
Thrown away. Forgotten.
“Isn’t that just like humanity?” I asked bitterly. “You build something for no other reason than to bring joy to people, and they shut it down. Why?”
“I guess it didn’t make enough money. But what about—”
“Money!” I spat, making Ethan jump. “Paper? Metal? You humans are always telling each other that money can’t buy happiness, but do you ever listen?”
I kicked one of the pins, letting it roll across the forgotten strip of wood.
“Sometimes I wonder if you people even want to be happy,” I whispered. “Maybe klaons like me are just wasting our time.”
Ethan grabbed me by the arm. “You know what would make me happier than anything else in the world, Henry? For you to stop screwing around and kill this thing before it kills us!”
I gave him a cold glare and yanked my arm away. “Fine. Come on.”
We made our way back to the center of the building, and I turned in a slow circle. Still no sign of the maiam, but there were plenty of places for it to hide. Dark party rooms, empty offices, an old three story playground that was sagging on its supports. It would take hours to search the whole place, and everywhere I didn’t find it would just increase our chances of it finding us first. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered me, but with Ethan here…
Henry, you’re a genius!
“Hey, Ethan, come here,” I said with a grin.
Hesitantly, he came to stand beside me. “What?”
I stomped on his foot.
The effect was exactly what I was hoping for. His face went red, he leaned his head back, and he howled in pain. His voice echoed through the building, and with it came a surge of power that nearly knocked me off my feet. He quickly bit his tongue, his cry turning into a whimper, but I’d already gotten what I wanted.
Somewhere deep in the bowels of Fun Lane, something moved.
Ethan froze at the sound. “What did you just do?”
I drew Splatsy again, extending her to warhammer form. “I’m a Hunter, right? Nothing wrong with using a little bait.”
“Yep! You should probably hide now.”
There was a clatter from above us, and I looked up just in time to see a shadow flit by on the thin metal rafters. Then it was gone. Pulling out my inhaler, I took a puff to strengthen me.
“On second thought,” I decided, “stay close.”
There was a soft thud, and a pin went rolling across the bowling lanes. I spun to look, and just barely glimpsed something as it darted into one of the dark, empty offices.
“Oh, you want to play hide and seek, huh?” I asked, and began to creep in that direction. Ethan tiptoed behind me.
We reached the office, and I hurried to press my back against the wall outside the door. Ethan stopped a little ways back and took cover behind the bowling shoe counter. With my left hand I turned on my phone’s flashlight, and shortened Splatsy to one-handed length with my right. Then, taking a deep breath, I spun around and charged inside.
It was empty.
“What the…” I shined my light around, and a pit formed in my stomach when I saw that a couple of the ceiling tiles were knocked askew. “Cheesecake and mayonnaise!”
Then Ethan screamed.
I sprinted back out to see the maiam clinging to the wall feet, reaching one hand down toward Ethan who lay terrified on the floor below. This one was thin and tall, its skin wrapped around its bones with nothing in between them. Arms and legs as long as I was tall ended in claws that let it climb around like a spider.
Channeling magic into my shoes, I launched myself toward it, swinging Splatsy as I went. The maiam let go just as I flew past, falling to land on all fours. I hit the ground, my momentum sending me sliding down one of the old bowling lanes, and spun. The maiam hissed at me, its long slimy tongue slithering between its fangs, before hopping onto the counter that Ethan was hiding behind. I charged at it, raising Splatsy. Just as I swung, though, it sprang into the air, did a backflip…
And then landed on top of me!
“Gah!” I screamed when I felt its cold, clammy hands grab my face. “Sweet holy enchiladas, get it off, get it off, get it off!”
I bucked and thrashed, but the maiam clung to me like a cowboy at a rodeo. Cursing up a buffet, I ducked my head and ran straight toward a wall.
“Eat concrete!” I yelled.
The maiam finally leaped off of me — and I realized too late that I couldn’t stop.
Oh, poopoo pancakes, I thought a split second before crashing headfirst into the wall. My vision went white, and I only vaguely remember falling down. My head was spinning like a caffeinated carnival ride. What had I been doing five seconds ago? Did it matter? The only thing I wanted to do was eat a few of those chocolate cabbages the giant bunny was giving away, ding dong, Rumpelstiltskin’s left butt cheek, I’m gonna go to college and become a hippo.
“Henry? Henry, help!”
“Look, Granny,” I mumbled. “I can drive a toilet.”
“Henry! Hen- no, get away! Don’t you touch me! HENRYYYY!”
I blinked. “I…what’s wrong? Ethan?”
In a flash, I was lucid again, and I scrambled to my feet just in time to see the maiam escape to the ceiling — with Ethan in its clutches.